The line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that stays with me and recurs is: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” I think Hamlet’s agonising, writhing ache resonates in part because I am bound up, quite literally, in a nutshell. I live on an island called Singapore with a total landmass of 274 square miles. The 2012 census tells us that 5.3 million people inhabit the island. That’s 19,544 people per square mile, making Singapore the third most densely populated country in the world. I have lived in Canada before. It has a population density of 4 people per square mile. It provided contrast in every way imaginable – climate, population density and culture. I first learned that peculiar turn of phrase, “I need space”, when I moved to Canada in my late teens. I rationalised that brooding twenty-somethings who’d had their first encounters with existential philosophy had invented it as a shallow way to avoid responsibility after a break-up. It largely didn’t make sense to me because I knew I wouldn’t get any space in my tiny island home even if I asked for it. Canadians, on the other hand, have so much of it, it’s the default position when things go awry – they take space to brood. I’ve never felt as lonely as I felt when I was living there. Even in moments of shared intimacy, I could sense the impending chasm, the space that would inevitably separate me from friends or lovers. They disappeared into vast open landscapes, up scraggly mountains or into misty woods. I thrust my elbows through crowds and disappeared into myself. I returned to Singapore and years later, I got married. We moved in with my in-laws, while we house-hunted. Even in a tiny island, there is such a thing as a hinterland. I had gotten used to my suburbs in the north and to living in the twelve-floor government housing apartment buildings. The white corridors in these buildings allotted just enough space to allow a flow of residents in either direction, but not enough to avoid human contact. Privacy was a privilege. The anxiety returned full-force. House-hunting can be both arduous and mundane at turns in any country. But here, it felt particularly debilitating. Land being limited and precious, housing prices were continually soaring. There may be something like an absolute definition of what constitutes poverty and I knew I was anything but poor. I was middle-class. I was luckier than most. But house hunting made me feel disenfranchised, useless and poor. It made me regret my ideals and long for a solid occupation. It wasn’t just that. I had migrated here in my adolescence and had learned the cultural vocabulary of house-hunting slowly and reluctantly. To speak the language of pragmatism was to refer to a house as property. It was rarely a home. The strong property market had made astute buyers and sellers out of young, upwardly mobile middle class couples. Yuppy couples could buy property and sell it within months to make a quick profit – a process colloquially referred to as “flipping”. There was also the widespread phenomenon of the en bloc, or collective sale. Properties that had been around for more than ten to twenty years in prime areas were spotted for the sale. If at least 80% of the owners in a private strata development (like a condominium) agree to it and the vote is unanimous, the project would be razed and bought by developers for new projects. It was seen as an opportunity to make a profit without the hassle of putting your home up for sale. It terrified me. Having moved my entire life from country to country, I found it painfully ironic that I had ended up settling in an island where upwardly mobile people flitted from property to property, constantly circling, navigating, shifting – never staying still – their house a gambling chip at a casino, not a place to build memories. At the other end of the scale, there were the truly disenfranchised. People who could not move, could not afford their homes, who were quietly, anxiously working away towards uncertain futures. Being luckier than most, we ended up near the island’s central catchment reserve area. The reserve is 7138 acres of young and mature secondary forests, some virgin primary forest and a few reservoirs. The National Parks Board calls it the ‘green lung’ of the city. Situated where it is, I often also thought of it as the beating heart of the island. It had always been there. I just never felt its gravitas until until I got older and the relentless talk of property prices made me long for something permanent. Apparently, housing never would be. Trees aren’t immortal, but what stood outside my window had been around for longer than the government in power and lightning strikes notwithstanding, it heartened me to think the forest would outlast me. The thought of dying didn’t frighten me quite as much as the thought of everything around me changing, irreversibly, through the course of my life. The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is a 400-acre segment of the whole catchment forest area. The entire reserve houses over 840 species of flowering plants and over 500 species of fauna – a fact that can be easily found by looking up the reserve online. There are still insects being discovered within its boundaries. I walk daily through its winding trails and when I find the older trees, I touch them and call them ‘grandfather’. It felt perfectly normal – they’d been around that long and they’d been witness to colonial rule, trade, wars and settlement. Here, finally, I felt like a king of infinite space. The nutshell I was bound up in was marvellous, its size belying the sheer diversity it held.
Every other day, I found some new bird perched on a branch or a creature flitting along the forest floor – a crane fly, a monitor lizard, and cobalt blue or bright red dragonflies. I thought of Dr. Seuss’ story. I felt like a Who living in that speck of a seed precariously balancing on a dandelion flower. I wanted to shout, “what you see as a speck is our world and our world is immense!” More of that sense of wonder came. In 2011, a railway line that for decades had served as the historic train route connecting Malaysia and Singapore was closed down. The line cut across the island from north to south. Untouched for years, when the tracks were removed from vast swathes of its 430 acres, it organically and naturally became a green corridor in which grassland, secondary forest growth, marshland and canals hugged you on either side. All told, it only occupied 0.24% of the total landmass of the island. Cantankerous developers are eager to start earmarking parcels for housing. The corridor winds its way through portions of highly-valued and eagerly desired housing districts, as well as areas that would be suitable for government housing. Singaporeans have fought back, not with political grandstanding or anti-development rants, but with a buoyant, positive and visionary outlook on how the corridor can provide much-needed reprieve from the city’s busy roads and glamorous shopping districts filled with clamouring consumers. We’re an aging nation and the government is pushing to rapidly increase the population to seven million in the coming decades. The effects of this sudden spike in immigration are already being felt. Efficient transport systems are breaking down regularly. Bus drivers from Mainland China have gone on strike because of low wages and the fluctuating crowds of commuters one might see through the course of a work day have been replaced by suffocating masses of people everywhere, all the time. There is simply nowhere to go. Inside the trails of the catchment reserve area and along the muddy paths of the green corridor, the anxiety ceases, at least momentarily. There are sudden, wide vistas that emerge unexpectedly. The forest descends to a canal and then closes up around you. You look up to hear the squealing cry of an osprey and when the branches creak, are tugged and suddenly snap back into place, you know a Macaque monkey is making its way through the canopy. Pheasants waddle their way across a path and a monitor lizard waits for you to move on, so it can sun itself. I have spotted young mothers, alone with their children, idling away the afternoon here. I have seen young couples walking their dogs, sometimes bare-footed. People change, virtually transform in these spaces. At Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, I am amongst the youngest frequent walkers. Briskly heading up and the down the hill, or through the trails, I often see bare-foot elderly Singaporeans or elderly couples; groups of men, or groups of women, on their daily walks. I once quietly followed an elderly Chinese man at Hindhede Reserve – a small segment that winds its way before ending at the magnificent Hindhede Quarry – because he had broken into an old Chinese song, while waving his arms about walking. It was so haunting, so captivating, that I followed the song. In the end, we both stopped to stretch, and since we did not speak a common language, I just smiled broadly, held a “thumbs-up” sign and told him “thank you uncle!” He was thrilled and burst into laughter before starting his tai chi. We had had a ‘moment’ and this environment which enclosed us, held us in its green, peaceful quietude, had enabled it. Our muscles are sore, but we keep walking along the old railway paths and the reserve trails almost everyday. There is a palpable hunger that is satiated when we’re in the woods. The railway lands have an uncertain future and that sends the anxiety right back up from belly to tongue – a bitter taste in the mouth like the remnants of an undigestable thought. We are told the catchment reserve is protected by law, but now it appears even that may not be the case with suggestions from the country’s Land Transport Authority that a train line may cut across its heart, breaking up the diversity and the ecological balance that is so vital to the island. We’re ecstatic and anxious all at once when we’re in reserve territory, or in green spaces on this island. It’s simply stunning at the most unexpected moments and that it is small, so modest in its scale, only makes it more powerful, more awe-inspiring. This is life in miniature with none of the efficacy, depth, breadth and complexity taken away. This was life on the island before it was colonised, parceled out, developed, dug into and named. There is something primal, even I daresay, spiritual in the experience of walking here. And this is when I think of that other line from Woolf’s Orlando. The eponymous hero (later, heroine) of the novel declares to his lover, “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.” I often joke to people that Singapore is an apt country to undertake spiritual practice in, particularly if one truly believes that nothing in this life is permanent. There is always and only that knife-blade separating this sense of ecstasy, this feeling of something lasting eternally, from the difficult realisation that nothing will. Like Orlando, I often find myself feeling the anxiety in advance, ahead of the event. The anticipation of that negative event – the razing of forests, of homes – fills me with anger and ruins that fleeting feeling of utter joy. The irony is, in the woods, I am filled with happiness because there is no future, no anticipation. I am here and here is all there is. Like Hamlet, it is the bad dreams that remind me I am bound up in a nutshell – my body, my home, this island. So we keep walking because there is nothing else to do, no other way to stave off the anxiety, except to remind ourselves that at least nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates the anxiety from happiness.